Shock Therapy

Washington Post headline: “For most people, electric shocks beat time alone.” (July 4, 2014) Happy Independence Day, America.

Conducted by University of Virginia psychologists, the study intended to see what happens when we just sit and let our minds wander. They had a theory that mind wandering might lead to increased creativity or something. They didn’t anticipate that people would have trouble with the task. But people did. It was difficult, they said. Devoted members of the heads-down tribe, they cheated and thumbed their cell phones.

I wonder if this is another of those introvert/extrovert splits? (See my previous blog on the topic, “The Great Divide,” May 27, 2014) The researchers should have checked participants for their Myers-Briggs results. Introvert that I am, sitting around letting my mind wander is what I do best.

Look, I’m doing it right now. Staring at my computer screen, listening to birds outside my window. That poor fellow’s been trying so hard to woo her, and she just flies away. I start making up a love triangle story about sparrows that involves extensive personification. I could do this kind of thing for hours. Look, Ma, no cell phone!

But study participants said it was too hard. So the staff tried to make it easier, gave people time to prepare what they might think about, gave them assignments: plan a vacation, for example. No go. They couldn’t stick it out. It was unpleasant, made them uncomfortable.

We must have been talking about a major amount of time in isolation with your own thoughts, right? A week, maybe? A day? Three or four hours?

None of the above. Six to fifteen minutes.

People couldn’t stand being alone with themselves for one quarter of an hour. So the researchers wondered, being the perverse people researchers are: was it so difficult that they’d prefer negative stimulation? They gave participants a device that would give them a mild electric shock if they pressed a button. Not expecting many would shock themselves voluntarily, of course.

But people did. Left alone in a room to keep their own counsel for fifteen minutes, people shocked themselves an average of seven times. Once every two minutes.

Here’s my theory.

Scenario 1: Female. You’re alone in a room with your thoughts, and you start out, OK, how about that dream vacation. We could go to Bali. That’s an exotic tropical paradise. We’d be on the beach—I’ve got to lose twenty pounds, how am I going to—Zap! I’ll shock myself instead.

More men shocked themselves than women. Why does that sound right to me?

Scenario 2: Male. Geez, I’m alone in this room. No TV? No TV. There’s nothing to do here. Supposed to plan a vacation, but, hell, the wife does that. There’s a game on, isn’t there? No TV. I’m falling asleep. Better shock myself. Zap! Wow, I’m pretty tough. That didn’t bother me at all. Let’s try again. Zap!

The women surprised me, though. Women may not be more introverted or self-reliant than men, but they do have busier minds. I figured a woman could keep herself going for fifteen minutes just with the closet re-organizing she needs to do and correcting her husband. I can hear her: “Sweetie, I do wish you wouldn’t leave gobs of toothpaste in the sink.” Hard to believe, but apparently those things weren’t enough.

Scenario 3: Female O.K. Bali’s out, in fact all beaches are out until I lose this weight, so what about Paris? We’ll get one of those direct overnights, stay where we can see the Eiffel Tower—and—your mother wants to come? Look, I’ve never told you this before, but your mother— Zap!

See, the mind is dangerous. Most of us really don’t want to let the thing off-leash. A friend told me she and her husband were going on a cruise, showed me the agenda, a day-by-day program packed with activities and tours. It made me tired looking at it. I observed that there wasn’t much down time.

“Oh, no,” she answered breezily. “I need to be busy. If I’m not, I start thinking.”

God forbid.

I kinda want one. One of those mild shock devices. You know, like for now, sitting at the computer alone in my room, supposed to be writing a blog, but thinking, I really should get back to yoga class and stop eating ice cream. Did I lock the front door? Zap! I shock myself and start hitting those computer keys. In theory.

Posted in Humor | 6 Comments

Classrooms Memories, Mostly with Food

from Spanish

Language classes traditionally have food days, justified by their “exposure to culture” standard. I have them twice annually, require describing food en español before eating, which makes for motivated learners.

“Blake, please don’t throw the tortillas,” I admonished. Who would’ve thought I’d need to say such a thing in life, let alone in class? Always on guard for breaches like flying tortillas, I say it calmly, secretly admiring how the corn missile twirled neatly from Blake’s hand to the boy’s across the room, a golden frisbee the receiver instantly dipped into his chile verde and ate. (2000)


These are arts students, so when we learn restaurant dialogue, it must be acted out with props, costumes, no notes in hand. “It has to be elaborate,” one student explained. Today Leigh performed a skit in which she convincingly became a three-year-old who wanted chocolate, not sopa de pollo. Several in the audience sighed, “oh poor thing,” so that Dan, exasperated, exclaimed: “it’s Leigh; it’s not a real baby.” (2001)

from Creative Writing

The old man, my neighbor’s sub today, ratchets slowly up the stairs, coffee mug in hand. I should tell him about the elevator, it’s not easy to find, but am in the midst of retrieving handouts from the printer and meeting with students, don’t remember him again until I return to the hall and find Cierra and Sarah down on their knees with the old man and paper towels, mopping up a large quantity of spilled coffee. He braces himself to rise, one hand on the banister, the other on his knee, muttering in cranky embarrassment that more paper towels are needed. Quick as sparrows, the girls dart down the hall, across the bridge, returning in a flash with white feathers fluttering from their hands.

‘I spilled—they’re helping,” he informs me.

These are my angels, the ones I must recall on the days I want to slap them silly, for those days will come. These are my cherubs, who restore faith. (2008)


Brendan J, adept open mic MC; Grace and Madison’s Pokemon performance with friends who shriek and applaud; Franklin’s rocking bilingual piece on being Mexican; Emily B’s passage from wheelchair to mic, walking with only light aid at her elbow while Brendan C spikes the applause and keeps them applauding til she arrives; sixth grader Jesse reading with his cap on sideways while his Mom, easel on stage, draws the taco he’s eulogizing. I arrived at 6:45 a.m.; now it’s 9:30 at night and I can’t count the trips I’ve made up the stairs from Commons to classroom and back. Waiting for Omnia’s parents outside the darkened school, everyone else gone, is respite: easy talk of future plans in cool night air. Driving home at ten, I think how loving and supportive these kids are with each other, how well they ran the show tonight, pitched in to bring, serve, clean up a spaghetti dinner, set up and decorate, fold and stack tables. This is how it should be—all I had to do was open doors. (2009)


It’s writer appreciation day and someone brought Oreos. (We get snacks for writer appreciation.) My middle school students listen quietly, some neatly stacking their Oreos, others carefully balancing them on end, three or four separating them, licking the white icing off, before eating the cookie: reverent, silent engagement with ritualized eating while the words of the story flow from page to page. (2010)


It’s cold and cloudy for the weekly middle school walk. Ben holds his blue umbrella over his head, pointlessly. “That is the point,” he says, unruffled. We cross the Johnson & Wales campus, ignore semi-hostile stares of college students. Yellow leaves drop willfully, no excuse of a breeze. “Look,” says Kristina, “Cha Cha doesn’t have the answer to the meaning of life but suggests you follow your heart.” Mikayla and Indy came coatless, but insist they’re fine, some macho girl thing. The same lonely cat as last week trots from its yard meowing and half the class pauses to pet it. Come, come, we have six blocks to go. I have snatches of conversation: those flying cave monkeys in your story, this running into trees thing should stop, those untied shoes and breaking your neck. I’m told the twigs in Tessa’s hat make a statement—that her head is wooden, I presume—and we’ve introduced ourselves to Izzy, who was sick for five days so we can’t remember her. “I’m Bob,” Nate tells her, “and,” gesturing toward Evan, “this is Bill.” Noses sniffing, cheeks flushed, we tumble back into the warm room and our screens bloom for silent writing after the walk, the vital balance between movement and stillness achieved. I need say nothing, they all fall to, keys clicking, screens filling with words in a hush that lasts and lasts and Cha Cha may not know the meaning of life, but for this moment we might. (2007)


Posted in Education, Memoir | 6 Comments

To Sleep Or Not

A horse in the front yard.

I’m in bed, reading Edith Grossman’s superlative Don Quixote translation. The errant knight just delivered a long “harangue” which Cervantes (via Grossman) suggests “could very easily have been omitted.” The harangue is about the Golden Age, a blissful era when people “did not know the two words thine and mine” and no one had to work for food. In Don Q’s modern 1605 view, the world had once been a socialist utopia.

I’ve reached the state wherein the eyes follow the print across the page without communicating about that journey to the brain. I turn out my light; Phil finishes his Ambrose Bierce story, turns out his and we go to sleep. That is, Phil goes to sleep, instantly, as he always does. I envy him for this ability. I toss, re-arrange coverings and plump pillows a few times, generally soon follow him.

But not always. You’d think, after all these years, I’d recognize the signs that this is one of those times and just get up. But I don’t. I want to sleep. Which brings me to the horse in the front yard. Phil’s sound asleep, I’ve done the usual tossing and plumping and my mind is still skipping around like a four-year-old. Suddenly, I’m imagining going out on my front porch with an apple in my hand which I’ve taken a bite from, and there’s a horse on my lawn, looking at me.

What the hell? A horse? I turn over, flip pillows to the cool side. Phil pays no attention to me, goes on sleeping. He’s annoying. The horse is a bright chestnut with a white splash down the nose. Obviously, I must secure this horse: it can’t be roaming the streets of Denver. And I must feed it. (Phil says that’s my first impulse with any live creature I come across.) I hold the apple out for the horse to smell, lead it toward the fenced back yard.

Why am I composing this highly unlikely scenario? Just shut up, I tell myself, turning over again. Today I shopped for summer tops, but it was a barely satisfying experience. Many of the nicest ones were sleeveless and these nasty old upper arms don’t do sleeveless. I blame Michelle Obama. Phil begins to snore.

Maybe I’ll write an essay about The Wild Animal Sanctuary, or a childhood memoir, have to decide that soon. I turn over again, cannot get comfortable, remember the old blues song, “Rocks in My Bed.” Did I lock the back door?

Once you’ve asked yourself such a question, the burglars start creeping into the yard. No help for it: I get up, tiptoe down the hall. Phil keeps snoring. Downstairs, everything’s locked. I drink some water, go to the bathroom, pace around. Tomorrow I’ll go to the farmer’s market, decide on the essay, wash the kitchen floor, thin those overgrown day lilies.

I check the sprinkler controller. Ha! It wasn’t set to come on. I knew I forgot something. I go back to bed. Surely I’ll sleep now. It’s been nearly two hours since we turned out the lights. Phil doesn’t stir, has stopped snoring. I close my eyes.

Impossible to get that horse to the back yard without something to hang onto, better put a halter on it. No, wait, let’s say I’m working in the backyard to begin with. I open the gate to the alley to toss weeds in the dumpster and there’s this horse, wearing bridle and saddle, trotting down the alley, stirrups swinging. Seeing the open gate, it simply veers into the yard and starts grazing on my lawn like it’s home at last. It’s a bay, with black points, mane, tail and legs. Thirsty. Drinks from the birdbath. I look up and down the alley for a rider. Nothing.

Who should I call? But first, I’ll fill a pail with water and get that apple, which in this version isn’t in my hand. Then I’ll take a photo with my phone, post it on the neighborhood Faceback page. Anyone missing a horse? It’ll be a pleasant change from the usual “I lost/found this cat or dog” we see on that page daily.

Suddenly I note the letters DPD tooled into the saddle leather. This could be serious. I dial 911, tell the dispatcher, “you may have an officer down.”

Damn! Where is the off switch for this brain? A: this is a stupid story. Does the police department even have horse patrols any more? B: I don’t write stories, so why am I writing this one? I turn over for the hundredth time, shoulders aching. Tonight I have a horse in the yard and rocks in the bed, can’t get rid of either.

At three a.m. Phil wakes up, his mind buzzing. He spends an hour cruising the internet, but I know nothing about it. By then, thank heaven, I’m sound asleep.

Posted in Humor | 7 Comments

Discovering Indians, 1951

Nana and Pop were the first on their block in Queens to get a TV. Sprawled on the single bed within my little room’s sloped walls, I was mesmerized by the fuzzy black and white images of Saturday morning.

“Pa-a-a-a-t!” The call rattled in my open window again, as loud as at its point of origin, two stories down, on the crooked sidewalk between our grandparents’ house and his.

I saw Kukla, Fran and Ollie, but I’m not sure that was Saturday. Saturday mornings were serial westerns. Hopalong Cassidy and his white horse. I remember waving fields of grain and the William Tell Overture, so I must have seen The Lone Ranger, only I thought it was “The Long Ranger.” I also recall his white horse. I was seven, much more interested in horses than cowboys. For the next few years, I would collect Hi-Yo Silver comics.

On the tiny screen a stagecoach was being pursued by bandits, its horses galloping full tilt past the same bush they’d galloped past a minute ago. I was confused. Were they running in circles? There it was again!


I heaved myself off the bed with a sigh and leaned out the window. Below me, my cousin Charlie paused, hands on the battered metal toy truck he’d been pushing noisily up and down the sidewalk. I knew that because I’d been hearing him do it, just as I’d been hearing him call me, through the haze of my television trance.

“What?” I asked, annoyed.

“Come play,” he demanded.

“Later,” I replied, and went back to the TV.

Indians attacked a wagon train. Women and children huddled behind barricades of barrels and sandbags. (Sandbags? That couldn’t be. It’s what I remember, though: the frightened face of the heroine peering over a wall of improbable sandbags.) Whooping Indians rode past, bareback, bare-legged, themselves and their horses decorated with paint and feathers, their hair long and dark. I sat up, fascinated, forgot the heroine. Who were those guys?

A sturdy smell of kielbasa, spare ribs, apples and sauerkraut climbed the steep stairs from Nana’s kitchen. Mostly, a smell of sauerkraut. I wrinkled my nose, but wasn’t worried. Nan always boiled hot dogs for the kids when she made her Old Country dish. Mom was working and Daddy’d gone to help Pop at the shoe shop. Sometimes he took me. I liked the smell of the leather and the noise the big green machine made when its bristly wheels turned. I liked the upside down metal feet that were a thin, abstract idea of feet, and the way shoes fit over them to have their new half soles attached.

We’d lived several places in New York, and now we lived with Nana and Pop on 65th Place in Woodside. Their house was narrow, tall and had a huge yard. I didn’t know we were living with them because Daddy didn’t have a job. I didn’t know that when he got a job it would take us to a foreign land called Florida. I didn’t know that TV would not reenter my life until I was in high school and too set in my book-reading ways to take up watching it again. I only knew I liked living with Nana and Pop, because of the TV, because my favorite cousin Charlie lived next door, and because Nana sometimes said, “Come here, Patty-girl. Shh! Don’t tell Mommy,” and gave me a slice of Pop’s special Dutch chocolate. This chocolate didn’t come in a thin, flat bar. When you opened its fancy square box and unwrapped its bright foil, it was a dark apple magically sliced into perfect wedges. Mommy said I couldn’t have any before dinner. That’s why we had to whisper.

In the dim living room where the TV usually stayed, a pair of wooden shoes rested on the mantle. A picture of windmills and a cartoony drawing called “Weesp in a Tub” hung on the walls. I was drawn to their mystery, only knew they belonged to Siebe Keuning, my grandfather. The peach and cherry trees, the grape arbor, the kielbasa and sauerkraut—those were Nana’s. For years, I believed chocolate was a Dutch invention and the smell of sausage and sauerkraut still drops me into Kataryna Dubrava’s Slovak kitchen.

But right then, nothing mattered except the new, marvelous thing called television. A bugle announced men in uniform coming to the rescue. The women and children behind the sandbags cheered. Indians were picked off their horses left and right, seemed to fall before they were shot. I stood up, dismayed. It was a rout. Tears startled me: I didn’t know I was going to cry. I was crying for those exotic creatures I’d never seen before, who were dying the moment I’d found them. I was crying perversely, against the black and white grain of the plot, for the wrong side.


Posted in Memoir | 6 Comments